Technology and Risk Displacement: Not just a theory

Okay, so this entry is going to be 'big picture' and I don't mean plasma TVs. Basically, it's just some thoughts about technology in a broad sense, beyond just chips and bits, but starting with something specific, a story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about toxic chemicals in our homes and in our, well, in us. And if you want a direct connection to the digital world, our computers are one source of these chemicals.

Like a lot of people, I feel strongly about technology. It would be true to say I 'love' technology, at least for a certain definition of 'love.' I'm not talking about the wide-eyed way I sometimes look at my Treo 650 while contemplating the awesome fact that this small and almost perfectly formed object can take dictation, place and receive phone calls, fetch and send email, and, even as it plays one of my 521 most favorite songs, zoom in on satellite imagery of just about anyone's house, anywhere on the planet [courtesy of Google Earth, some restrictions may apply]. That's not love, that's infatuation.

The love relates to the hugely positive changes technology has enabled during my lifetime (early 1950s to circa Now). That includes everything from indoor plumbing to air bags, polio vaccine to organ transplants, jet planes to this here Internet, that sometimes takes the bits and bytes I write out into space and back to earth, in seconds. You get the picture (and my picture, in the upper right-hand corner, viewable from web browsers in just about every country on the planet).

However, I would never advocate unconditional love for technology. My father was an engineer and so I got an up-close education in applied technology from an early age. I remember him pondering the challenge of stopping a jumbo jet after it had landed (he worked for Dunlop, which built the brakes and tires for the 747, which do most of the stopping--he had designed thrust reversers not long after jet engines were deployed in civilian aviation, but they don't do as much to stop planes as you might think). We often pored over blueprints on the kitchen table and I would spend time in his workshop where he 'tinkered' with all manner of tools and materials.

I particularly remember him working with asbestos, which has highly prized engineering properties. Apart from simple insulation, it was used in brake pads and in the handling of molten metals for castings. It was used extensively in ships and my father served as an engineer in the Royal Navy during WWII. He died of respiratory cancer not long after his fiftieth birthday.

Long before I became involved with computers I had formed several thoughts about technology. I decided technology itself was neutral, the classic case in point being nuclear technology, which enables hugely destructive bombs and power generation without fossil fuels. Growing up during the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation was a daily worry, to me at least, particularly after my mother took me on a 'Ban the Bomb' march when I was eight. But England in the 1950s was a very smoggy place, with terrible air quality in most big cities. A lot of air pollution has been avoided by the generation of 'clean' fuel through nuclear reaction. Yet each benefit has an offset. Disposing of spent nuclear fuel is no small problem. And each downside has an upside. For example, since the nuclear bomb has been widely deployed the stand-off inherent in mutually assured destruction means there have been no world-wide armed conflicts.

So first I decided that technology itself is neutral (applied technology not so much). And then I entertained the thought that no single technology produces a net gain. Clean fuel, dirty residue. Increased mobility through automotive transportation, increased pollution. Greater travel, wider spread of disease. Heat resistance, lung disease. Greater access to useful data, greater exposure of private data. You can go on and on. As you do so, you'll probably think of mitigating factors. After all, new technologies are frequently developed that counter or avoid the downside of earlier technologies. No more lead in paint, no more asbestos in brake shoes, and so on. But remember my premise: 'no single technology produces a net gain.'

Take flame retardants. They reduce the risk of fire, the extent of fire damage, and probably save lives. You will find them in clothes, car seat cushions, computer wires, and the dust on your desk. And now we find that traces of potentially toxic flame retardant chemicals are showing up in people, and building up in their blood and tissue. What is more, chemicals long banned are still showing up.

This is risk displacement. It occurs in many areas of life. Consider seat belts. They save lives, right? But some studies have shown that people wearing them drive worse than people who are not. I'm particularly upset with those car commercials where people who are busy chatting away while driving get hit by another car and walk away. Are we doing enough testing of the phenomenon that, the more someone feels that technology makes crashing survivable, the more likely they are to crash?

Risk displacement also occurs in computer security. Closing down an avenue of attack does not in itself reduce the total sum of effort and resources that will going into attacks. The attacks will find a different path. Which brings us back to the big picture. Attacks on computers will only diminish when the general standard of human behavior improves. That is not an impossible goal. The amount of drunk driving going on today is less than it was. That is not a result of changes in technology but of changes in people. The lesson is not to look to technology for answers it cannot provide, and not expect a new technology to be all upside and no downside.

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